Michael Cox looks at the developing role of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid, and how it is affecting his on-pitch relationship with Cristiano Ronaldo...
Gareth Bale’s debut campaign at Real Madrid started slowly, but was eventually an unqualified success, with a Copa del Rey-winning goal and a crucial strike in the Champions League final among the highlights.
In his second season, Bale has maintained the same level, rather than pushing on as many had hoped, and therefore while his form remains good, more doubts have been expressed over his role at Los Blancos.
Earlier this month, the Welshman was jeered by a section of the Real Madrid fans for not squaring to Cristiano Ronaldo when put through on goal against Espanyol – he dragged his shot wide.
The incident, in truth, has largely been blown out of proportion - he's even been linked with a move away from the club, with Manchester United supposedly a possible destination – yet it summarises Bale’s problem at Real Madrid: however well he performs, he’ll always be playing second fiddle.
Bale isn’t a selfish player – statistics demonstrate that he assists Ronaldo far more frequently than the other way around.
Since Bale’s move to Spain, he’s created 9 of Ronaldo’s goals, whereas the reverse has occurred just once. Besides, he passed to Ronaldo plenty of times against Espanyol – and while Ronaldo often passed back, they were much less penetrative balls.
A large part of all this is about their positioning. Last season, Ancelotti switched to something of a 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid midway through the campaign, especially for big European games, which resulted in Bale and Ronaldo playing very different roles.
Bale was on the right of the four-man midfield, Angel Di Maria played to the left, and Ronaldo was given freedom in a roaming, left-sided forward role – perhaps comparable to the position Thierry Henry played at Arsenal. Bale always collected the ball wide, Ronaldo often in more central positions.
This season, things have changed. Di Maria and Xabi Alonso have departed, while Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez have arrived. This has resulted in a change of shape to a standard 4-3-3, which has meant Bale pushing higher up the pitch.
There’s also been a shift in style, and Real Madrid have dominated possession increasingly, with Bale often picking up the ball in the final third, rather than when counter-attacking on the halfway line.
Last season, it was entirely natural that Bale would supply Ronaldo more than vice-versa – it was a midfielder playing a pass through to an attacker.
This season, they’re essentially playing the same role on opposite sides of the pitch, and are more directly comparable – while being less likely to combine. If Bale was selfish in that aforementioned incident, perhaps it’s because he knows his game is now more about goals, rather than simply providing for attackers.
Nevertheless, when Ronaldo and Bale do combine, Real can be a tremendous attacking force. Perhaps the best example was in the 2-1 victory away at Malaga in late November, where the duo linked for the game’s clinching goal. By this stage, Karim Benzema had been removed and Real had moved to a system featuring Ronaldo and Bale up front together, counter-attacking at the Malaga defence.
The goal was fascinating, because it involved Ronaldo beating the opposition centre-backs to a high, hopeful long ball downfield, and flicking it onto Bale, who reached the knock-down, raced clear of the opposition defence and finished coolly with his right foot.
That remains the only goal Ronaldo has assisted for Bale, and while it was essentially a counter-attacking goal, it was also something of a Route One goal too, and highly atypical of Real’s usual style. In fact, it was the second goal Ronaldo created that evening – the opener featured his brilliant assist for Benzema.
Last season’s shape worked nicely for Bale, because he was playing a different role to Ronaldo. This time around, things are much tougher: he’s essentially playing the same position as Ronaldo, but is unquestionably beneath him in the food chain.
If Bale concentrates on supplying Ronaldo, he probably won’t justify his transfer fee – if he goes for goal himself, he’s seen as attempting to overshadow Ronaldo.
The European champions will be desperate for Ronaldo to remain fit throughout the season, but should he miss any key games between now and May, that will be Bale’s best chance of proving his worth – then, he can become the main man.